In 2015 the Oklahoma County Commissioners were facing a crisis situation relative to the ever growing and highest ever county jail population of approximately 2,600 on a daily basis. The 1,250 bed facility was vastly overcrowded and the United States Department of Justice had cited over 70+ areas of concern it had with the facility to be addressed. Other than the construction of a new facility, the County had no solution to deal with the overcrowding.
The County reached out to the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber to “test the waters” for a county bond issue to build a new facility. Subsequent voter polling conducted by the Chamber showed that voters would not even come close to passing such an initiative. In light of that insight, the County asked that the Chamber become engaged in trying to come up with alternative solutions, which the Chamber agreed to do.
Led by Clay Bennett, the Chamber engaged the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) in late 2015 to better understand the jail population issues. Vera issued its first report to the Chamber in January 2016. In brief they found multiple drivers in the jail population growth that could be addressed locally with long-term impacts on the population. They found many low-level (misdemeanor or traffic), non-violent offenders taking up jail beds. They saw many case processing delays that causes people to stay in jail longer then they should. They saw significant assessment of fines and fees in place, essentially transferring costs of running the system to those unable to pay. They found that approximately 80% of the people in our jail had not been convicted of a crime – they were awaiting hearings or a trial. And of that number, more than 70% only committed misdemeanor offenses. And finally, more than 400 of the 2,600 had significant mental health issues going untreated.
In 2016, the Chamber entered into a Phase II project with Vera. This phase would involve detailed data analysis of the entire Oklahoma County Criminal Justice System, a physical mapping of the system including identifying the key players involved in the system, an identification and analysis of fines and fees in the system, and finally detailed recommendations for the reduction of our incarceration rate and the improvement of our system. That study was completed and presented to the public on December 14, 2016, at a press conference.
In early 2017, the Chamber entered into a Phase III project with Vera. This phase would involve the implementation of the 29 recommendations of the Phase II study and provide full-time Vera staff housed at the Chamber for such.
Concurrent with all the above, the Chamber had established an Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Task Force to guide this effort. This involved dozens of volunteers and professionals committed to this initiative. A priority of the Vera recommendations was the establishment of a permanent advisory council to establish continuity and institutional knowledge of this initiative. The following individuals now comprise the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council: Clay Bennett (Chair), Tony Tyler (Vice Chair), Sue Ann Arnall, William Citty, James Couch, Judge Timothy Henderson, J. Guy Henson, Judge Philippa James, Pastor Theodis Manning, David Prater, Robert Ravitz, Larry Stevens, Dan Straughan, P. D. Tayor, LaShawn Thompson, Ray Vaughn, Rick Warren, Terri White and Roy Williams. Also Frances Kersey (Secretary) and Michael Nordin (General Counsel).
In January 2017 the Advisory Council began interviews for selecting a full-time Executive Director who will focus efforts to continue the process of continuous improvement to the criminal justice system. Has there been any progress in reducing the jail population? Since the onset of the Chamber’s initiative, the county jail population on a daily basis has dropped from 2,600 to less than 1,600 – over 1,000 reduction.